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More than one way to cook a cat(fish)

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Posted: Saturday, September 22, 2012 12:00 am

Catfish won’t win any beauty contests.

While the salmon has a distinguished profile and the mahi mahi has rainbow scales, the catfish is ... pretty ugly.

My first encounter with the bottom dwellers was actually in the aquarium I had as a kid. There, we kept a number of fish but, surprisingly, some of the most lovable were the armored corydoras catfish, commonly known as cory cats. A bit timid at first, the little whiskered fellows scuttled along the bottom happily, munching up fallen food and other things that lurk at the bottom of an aquarium.

I suppose I figured the eating kind of catfish just looked like larger versions of my little aquarium pets. So imagine my surprise when I saw my first channel cat, caught by a friend during an outing at Medina Lake. It thrashed around on its line and, when held out of the water for me to see, bore a striking resemblance to Jar Jar Binks from the “Star Wars” prequels. It had skin like an eel and it grunted and clicked. It was, quite frankly, creepy.

Catfish are probably one of the most misunderstood of food fishes. Long-considered the fare of poor country folk, many in northern and urban communities shun the native swimmer. But here in Texas, and throughout the south, catfish is prized — particularly when fried and served with hushpuppies.

Catfish can be reeled in on a line (my preferred method) or caught on a trotline. Some intrepid fishermen (and some fisherwomen) even go so far as to use their bodies as bait in a sport called “noodling.” The noodler reaches into dark caverns and cubbies where catfish may be hiding and “catches” the fish on their arm.

The expression “more than one way to skin a cat,” may not refer to a feline (I sure hope not, anyway) but a catfish. There are quite a few ways to cook them up, too and it seems everyone has a clear favorite. Those who fry catfish seem to be divided between two camps: Those who fry them whole and those who prefer the fillets. Personally, I’m a filleter.

I imagine everyone probably has a different way to clean a cat, too.

My husband Jimmy swears that the best method is to simply remove the fillets and toss the rest, being sure to avoid the belly area where a lot of muddy taste is.

And while we’re on the subject of catfish arguments, I’ll also mention that some people swear by wild-caught cats while others shun all but the farm-raised versions.

The farm-raised fans say that wild cats are responsible for the “muddy tasting” reputation, as farm fish are fed a restricted diet and (at least at US facilities) are kept in carefully maintained waters.

Overseas farms may not be held to the same standards of diet and water quality, so be sure to check for a stateside source when purchasing catfish. Catfish is also an eco-friendly, sustainable food option.

On the other hand, wild fish, including catfish, are said to be lower in fat and to contain a higher level of those health omega 3 fatty acids and other vitamins. They are almost certain to be free of antibiotics. Some say that a controlled habitat of farmed fish produces a milder flavor, while wild-caught fans say that there is no way to duplicate the freshness of constantly moving river water and a varied natural diet.

Because of a few bad experiences with catfish, and because of their bottom-feeding nature, I wasn’t really enthusiastic when Jimmy and I set out to catch some in the Guadalupe River at the beginning of the summer. He is one of those wild-caught cat fans and swore up and down that, properly cleaned, catfish were sweet and mild.

Turns out, in my opinion, he was right.

The catfish we brought back from the Guadalupe were some of the best fish I have ever tasted. With Jimmy manning the grill and me in the kitchen, we put together a fantastic catfish dinner. It’s a meal Jimmy’s been desperate to recreate ever since that day in June.

The thing about seeking out wild-caught catfish is that you have to pretty much catch them yourself, which is certainly a guarantee of peak freshness. Lately, I’ve become pretty interested in knowing where my food comes from, so the idea of actually going out and harvesting my own dinner was pretty appealing. But, while fishing is a worthwhile and enjoyable way to be outdoors, it’s not exactly a trip to the supermarket.

On our last fishing voyage a few weeks ago, we went down to the river with visions of a fish fry in our heads, but instead we just lost a lot of bait.

Our bellies were empty, but we did get a visual treat of watching a gang of wild turkeys go to roost in a cypress tree across the river.

And it’s possible, things like that are what make the wild fish taste so much sweeter when you — eventually — reel them in.

Fried Catfish

(Inspired by the version from “Texas Home Cooking” )

Serves 4

2 pounds of catfish fillets

2 cups of plain Greek yogurt

2-3 tbs. sriracha sauce (in the Asian food aisle) or hot pepper sauce such as Tabasco

1 garlic clove, minced

2 c. cornmeal

flour

2 tsp. paprika

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. freshly-ground pepper

dash of cayenne

Canola oil or peanut oil

Lemon wedges, tartar sauce or Tabasco sauce for serving

In a freezer bag or non-reactive dish, mix yogurt with sriracha or Tabasco, and garlic. Add fish and coat with mixture. Leave to marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

Mix cornmeal, paprika, salt and pepper in a plate or shallow bowl.

Fill a cast iron skillet about halfway with oil. Heat oil to 350, making sure oil doesn’t smoke before it reaches full temperature.

While the oil is heating, drain the fillets and roll in cornmeal mixture until coated, one fillet at a time.

Gently place pieces in the skillet, but don’t crowd them, you can always work in batches.

You’ll want to cook them about 5 minutes for each 1/2 of thickness. Turn the fillets once during cooking. Adjust as needed: yOu want a deep golden brown coating and a flaking inside.

Transfer fillets with a slotted spoon or spatula to a plate covered in paper towels and keep somewhere warm (not the oven, in this case).

Serve with hushpuppies and fries, lemon wedges and tartar sauce.

 

Cajun Blackened Catfish

(adapted from Gourmet)

Serves 4

4 tsp. paprika

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried thyme

1/2 tsp. cayenne

1 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

4 catfish fillets, about 1/2 pound each

2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

lemon wedges for serving

Mix paprika, oregano, thyme, cayenne, sugar, salt and pepper in a bowl. Pat fillets dry (this helps seasonings adhere and the meat to cook better). Coat fish well with spice mixture. In a large skillet, saute garlic with the olive oil over medium-high heat until it’s golden brown then toss it (or set it aside for another use, if you can’t bear to waste garlic). Add the butter to the oil and heat. Wait until the foam goes down before adding the fish. Saute the fish for 4 minutes on each side, or until done in the middle. With a slotted spoon, move the fish from the pan. Serve with lemon wedges and a side of Cajun rice and okra. Zydeco music, optional.

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